Foreign worker woes; A federal program is providing desperately needed labour for Alberta employers -- but at a severe price for many workers

Mexican worker Angel Hernandez decided three decades ago he would someday come to Canada, after he saw a street dog gobble up a hamburger.

Hernandez was working in a popular French restaurant in Tijuana when a woman customer asked for a burger, even though it wasn't on the menu. Reluctantly, the French chef made her a thick patty with a bun, and the restaurant charged the young tourist an exorbitant price.

"And later she went outside and offered the special hamburger to the dog," said Hernandez -- now 50 years old, thin and weary-looking, sitting in an immigration agency in Calgary.

The woman in the restaurant told another staff member she was Canadian. And that small act stayed branded in his mind.

"Canadians are generous," he thought.

So last year when Hernandez, then an unemployed carpenter, saw a want ad in a newspaper looking for workers willing to come to Canada, he called the number listed.

It set off a chain of events he says saw him hit with a bill for $10,000 Cdn from the recruiting agency, moved unexpectedly from Vancouver to Calgary, underpaid for weeks of work and eventually left without a job in the most desperate labour market in the country.

Life as a temporary foreign worker in Canada hasn't worked out the way Hernandez imagined.

"It's a nightmare."

Canada Day celebrations and rituals focus on how the country has meant peace and prosperity for generations of immigrants, but another group of newcomers is increasingly -- and dramatically -- shaping the country.

The number of temporary foreign workers coming to the country is growing in leaps and bounds due to Western Canada's severe labour shortage.

While the program used to be about attracting highly skilled foreign nationals and seasonal agriculture workers, the last two years have witnessed dramatic growth in the area of low-skilled workers -- those people in Alberta who are now taking full-time jobs as dishwashers, construction workers, security guards or truck drivers.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the number of foreign workers not expected to have any training for their jobs increased by almost 80 per cent in the first nine months of 2006 compared to the same period in 2005.

Temporary workers are propelled here by a number of factors -- a web of international recruiting companies, increasingly accommodating government rules and businesses crying out for staff, especially those who won't quit on a whim.

Skilled or not, thousands of foreign workers are quietly altering the Alberta landscape with a fierce desire to make it in a rich, industrialized country.

But along with providing help to labour-hungry employers and putting money in workers' pockets, the foreign-worker program is creating confusion, headaches and sometimes misery for some, like Hernandez.

"Is there abuse of foreign workers?

I'm pretty sure there is," said Calgary immigration lawyer Peter Wong. "Is it universal? No, because they don't just stay with you. It's counterproductive to abuse the workers."

But when workers arrive in Canada, their work permits are tied to a specific employer. Other jobs are available, but fresh-off-the-plane workers like Hernandez often don't know where to ask.

"It's not easy because he doesn't know who to talk to," said Carolyn Christison, a partner in recruiting agency International Employment Solutions.

Immigration settlement agencies say confused and worried workers are showing up at their doors across the province in increasing numbers. At the Centre for Newcomers in the city's northeast, staff used to see a foreign worker come in every couple of weeks.

Now it's every week.

Two men, near tears, came in last week and said they had been fired after asking for promised wages at a construction company. Others come in with easier questions about winter clothing or how to change companies. The staff do their best to help, but because foreign workers are not immigrants, centres are not funded to deal with their concerns.

"This is eating up our agency time," said Carol Simpson, manager of employment services at the centre.

Both labour and immigration advocates say these newcomers are second-class workers compared to their Canadian counterparts -- who are not at risk of being punted from the country if they are fired or suddenly unable to work. Immigration centres say temporary foreign workers are much less likely to launch a complaint even if they are being mistreated by bosses, underpaid or not paid for all hours worked.

And increasingly, there are stories of workers being charged thousands of dollars in recruiting fees -- an illegal practice in Alberta. The government said 10 agencies in the province are now under investigation for charging illegal recruitment fees to workers, many of them foreign.

"To respond to a booming growing economy by just flinging the doors open without sufficient controls is another concern," said immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.

Lower-skill workers are supposed to be told their stay in Canada is temporary, but many carry quiet hopes -- at times encouraged by recruiters -- they will be able to stay.

"A lot of them are being promised things that realistically would not happen because Canada does not want unskilled workers here on a permanent basis," said Christison.

One goal of her company is to make sure low-skilled workers are told the truth about their circumstances and do not pay recruiting fees, she said. Employers instead pick up the tab.

Wong said perhaps a few hundred will qualify for the permanent residency track this year through the Provincial Nominee Program.

"Everyone wants to stay," said the Calgary immigration lawyer. "When they hit my office, we're careful to counsel (the low-skilled) workers that they shouldn't have that hope, and that the program is 24 months for them."

This fact is a huge disappointment for Tiburcio Ochoa, 48, a Salvadoran hired to work in a hog processing plant in Red Deer. While in Canada, he had to undergo emergency bypass surgery. Ochoa is now on disability insurance and looking for work with virtually no English skills.

But he's had a taste of life here and wants to remain.

"No one wants to be sick," Ochoa said through a translator, noting he will earn perhaps $5 a day back in San Salvador, which is rife with underemployed workers. He said he will never be able to support his family and pay for his medications.

"If I go back to my country, it would be to die."

In Calgary, Hernandez has found a new friend in Bernardino Morales, 27, from a rural area of Veracruz. The two Mexican workers have become united in anger over their working conditions in Canada.

The two men both arrived early this year and quit their jobs in May.

Speaking mostly through a translator at the Centre for Newcomers, Hernandez and Morales say they bought their own plane tickets. The pair both say they had agreements with an agency called peopleMovers, with offices in Mexico, England, Switzerland and Canada.

But what happened in Mexico before the men came here is in dispute.

Hernandez and Morales both say they were only given written contracts, in English, at the airport about a half-hour before their flight departed. The contracts stipulated they would have $10,000 Cdn deducted from their future paycheques for services provided by peopleMovers.

Hernandez took the terms because he was desperate to get work outside Mexico, "where unemployment is generations long."

But Richard McPhee, a spokesman for peopleMovers in Vancouver, said the Mexican office of the agency gave both men Spanish-language written contracts well in advance of their trip, and they agreed to the $10,000 fee for getting the work permits set up -- not for recruitment.

McPhee said the fee is not unreasonable for someone who is unemployed to have a chance to come to Canada, and the fee may also include services to bring the workers' families here. A few workers even end up getting permanent residency status, he said.

"All and all, if the worker comes up and he pays $10,000 and gets a really good job that he could never have at home, and he sends money home to his wife and kids, and then later gets immigrant status, he's probably thinking that's a very decent price," McPhee said.

"If we could lower it, I'm sure that we would."

The Alberta government said Friday that investigators are looking into peopleMovers for not having an employment agency licence in Alberta, and will also examine the $10,000 fee.

However, McPhee said the company is no longer attempting to collect the fee for the Mexican office since the men have quit. He also said the men were never supposed to be in Alberta, and his company does not operate in Alberta.

It appears the workers were moved by the construction company that hired them.

When Hernandez came to Canada, he thought he was going to be working in Vancouver. Ten days after arriving, he was told he would actually be going to Calgary to work. Although he travelled to Alberta by air, he said the briskness of the move made him feel "like cattle" being shipped.

At peopleMovers, McPhee said the work permit issued for the men only allowed them to work in B.C. and it was the construction company that moved them. "We don't know why those guys were in Alberta."

Regardless of the agreement on the agency fees, it was once they were in Canada where Hernandez and Morales had the most troubles.

When Hernandez saw the $10,000 fee on the contract back in Mexico, he says he did a quick calculation in his head. At a rate of $28 per hour, he decided he would be able to afford the $500 payments every paycheque and still send money back home.

What Hernandez says he didn't know was he would still have to pay taxes and Canada Pension Plan and employment insurance contributions. He also claims the employer didn't live up to the terms of the contract he signed in Mexico, and paid him only $22 an hour for his work in Canada.

Both men provided documents showing they were employed by a B.C. construction firm working in Alberta, along with documents showing they were supposed to be paid $28 but received $22. However, the company did not respond to repeated interview requests.

The two men also had various complaints about working conditions, including safety issues and cases of verbal harassment.

They are now living off savings, looking for a new employer that can accept foreign workers and pursuing their case with the provincial government.

"There are good and bad people," said Hernandez. "The common people help us."

Part of the problem is the sheer size of the increase in temporary foreign workers.

Look at the construction workers in Fort McMurray or downtown Calgary, the chambermaids in hotels in Banff, or the truck drivers roaring down Queen Elizabeth II Highway, and you're likely to see temporary foreign workers.

Many are happy. As other Calgarians kick back on Canada Day, temporary foreign worker Kenneth Fang, 28, will be making dinners at a Smitty's restaurant. Working his 1 to 9 p.m. shift, the young cook will earn $11.74 an hour -- about the price of a dinner-sized salad at his restaurant.

"The people are very friendly and they treat us right," the Filipino cook said of his first three months here. "Canada is peaceful. The pollution is not like our country. And I like the weather -- it's not too hot."

But as the number of temporary foreign workers continues to increase across Canada -- last year by about nine per cent -- workers' advocates say so will the number of unaddressed issues.

In Alberta, the stream of foreign workers is increasing at a torrential pace.

The latest figures from Citizenship and Immigration Canada have Alberta's numbers increasing by 46 per cent in the first nine months of 2006 compared to the same time period in 2005. In the first nine months of 2006, almost 11,000 temporary foreign workers entered the province -- moving towards the total of 20,000 traditional immigrants for the entire year.

Nobody expects anything but much higher growth for the next 18 months.

"These days, it's never just one. Everyone wants dozens of them," said Wong, whose law firm does the paperwork that allows employers to show they need foreign workers.

"The volumes are so high for employers of all types. We're talking cleaning companies, restaurants, manufacturing, oil and gas sector, construction. The list goes on and on."

Three years ago, the federal government changed its policies to make it easier for companies to bring in lower-skilled workers.

And in February, Ottawa announced those workers can now stay for up to two years

instead of one before returning home for a four-month time-out -- making it more attractive to employers to bring in low-skill workers.

At the same time, there are signals that both the federal and provincial governments -- which both have two departments with some responsibilities for temporary foreign workers -- are examining the treatment of workers.

"We are concerned about all allegations of abuse, mistreatment or wrongdoing. Temporary foreign workers are entitled to the same rights and protections as all Canadian workers," said Lesley Harmer, spokeswoman for Human Resources and Social Development Minister Monte Solberg.

"We are currently exploring ways to more closely monitor employers."

Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry Minister Iris Evans said in a recent Calgary speech that she wants the barriers keeping temporary foreign workers from coming to Alberta to be further relaxed -- but stressed they shouldn't be brought in as "slave labour."

In the wake of the growth of the temporary foreign worker market, Service Alberta is reviewing its rules to see if its legislation works for recruiting agencies and protects employees.

Says Calgary immigration consultant Alan Davies: "There's a tremendous amount of good in the program. But there is some bad."

Attempting to work on that bad side is Edmonton labour lawyer Yessy Byl, who has been funded through the Alberta Federation of Labour to advocate for temporary foreign workers across the province.

Since being appointed in May, Byl has 80 files from workers who say they were mistreated or needed other help.

She is so busy, she is turning down media interviews, said AFL president Gil McGowan.

Especially on Canada Day, McGowan said, Canadians should be questioning the tenets of the foreign workers program.

"If these people are good enough to serve our coffee, build our houses and work on our construction sites, then they're good enough to stay as full citizens."

How many of our parents or great-grandparents would have been able to stay in Canada if they had to contend with the temporary foreign worker program, he asked. The program and its growth creates the potential for a large underclass of workers in Alberta, he said.

"People can come here, work hard and once we're done with them, we'll send them home," he said. "That's not the Canadian way."

Sociologist Michael Haan, who studies immigration at the University of Alberta, believes the increase in the number of temporary foreign workers is the outcome of flawed immigration policy.

Canada's system focuses so heavily on recruiting skilled immigrants it is no surprise that Alberta and Canada are short of lower-skilled workers, Haan said.

"Now, as sort of a Band-Aid fix to this problem, we are admitting lower-skilled workers to fill the gaps."

In general, labour advocates and immigration centres say there's a greater propensity for temporary foreign workers to be mistreated by employers because of the vulnerability that comes with their temporary status.

However, Wong said it's the unethical international recruiters bringing workers to Alberta that provincial and federal governments need to crack down on.

"There has to be something better than the Wild, Wild West."

As for Hernandez, he decided to talk to the media because he doesn't want other temporary foreign workers to go through the same thing as he and Morales have experienced.

And ultimately, Hernandez would like to stay in Canada -- not only because of the work opportunities -- but because he believes the people from all over the world makes this country good and strong.

"Canadians are not just one race," Hernandez said. "There are lots of things to learn."

Calgary Herald, Page B1, Sun July 1 2007
Byline: Kelly Cryderman

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